WASHINGTON — It’s fun to debate whether elections are close or an eternity away, and whether candidates have time to make their move or have missed their opportunity to win. But, as with most things, proximity depends on perspective, and tying key electoral moments to past or future nonpolitical events can be helpful when trying to understand what’s most likely to happen.
Here are some timely benchmarks that can provide useful context for the 2024 elections.
Iowa and football
Former President Donald Trump is the clear front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination for a third consecutive time. But while he led the Republican field by more than 40 points in the latest national poll for NBC News, his lead in the early states has been more narrow, giving Trump’s detractors hope that there’s still time for him to be dethroned.
On one hand, the Iowa Republican caucuses are less than four months away on Jan. 15, which feels imminent, and Trump is ahead of the field by anywhere from 24 to 32 points, according to five different polls over the past 10 days.
On the other hand, we just finished Week 4 of the college football season, and the entire season, including the national championship game on Monday, Jan. 8, will be completed before Republicans in Iowa make their presidential choice.
Recent history also shows there’s still time for movement within the Iowa race. At this point in the 2016 cycle, neurosurgeon Ben Carson was pulling close to Trump in the polls, and he eventually led Trump in some surveys into mid-November. Then, by Thanksgiving, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz started his surge, on his way to a first-place finish.
But, once again, there are some key differences between the two races. The 2016 Iowa caucuses were two weeks later than they will be this cycle, and Trump is in a stronger position this cycle. He’s functionally the incumbent in the 2024 race and is getting between 45% and 51% of the vote in Iowa, compared with 2015, when he was rarely getting more than a third of the vote. This time, Trump has a lot further to fall, and if another candidate were to surge to 28% like Cruz in 2016, that probably wouldn’t be enough to win.
Biden’s Super Bowl benchmark
It’s too early to freak out about President Joe Biden’s mediocre political standing, according to Democrats. There’s time for him to tell his story about the economy, they contend, and he’s in the same place President Barack Obama was in eight years ago, before he won a second term. But is that actually the case?
Yes, Obama was underwater more than a year before his reelection, but Biden is in a worse position than the former president was at a comparable point in his presidency. Using Gallup as a measuring stick because of its robust archive, Obama was 10 points underwater on his job rating (41% approve/51% disapprove) in a Sept. 19-25, 2011 survey. In comparison, Biden was 17 points underwater (41% approve/58% disapprove) in the most recent, Sept. 1-23 Gallup poll.
By the time Mario Manningham made his epic sideline catch and the New York Giants defeated the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI on Feb. 5, 2012, Obama’s job rating was closer to even. By Major League Baseball’s Opening Day a couple of months later, Obama’s job rating started to creep into positive territory, but his job approval rating wasn’t consistently positive until the September before his reelection.
On paper, that’s a blueprint Biden could reasonably replicate: to at least be treading water politically by the time the Seattle Seahawks defeat Taylor Swift’s Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII on Feb. 11.
But the president’s job rating has been largely static (and poor) for more than two years, since the country’s exit from Afghanistan. Paid ads, better messaging on the economy and increased voter attention could help Biden’s standing, but nothing has fundamentally changed voters’ opinion of Biden over the past 24 months. As in the 2022 midterm elections, Democrats may have to rely on voters who disapprove of the job Biden has done still deciding to vote for him, rather than expecting his standing to improve over time.
By most standards, the fall of 2024 is a long way away.
The 2023 baseball playoffs are about to begin, and yet the entire 2024 baseball season could be complete before voters go to the polls on Nov. 5 of next year. (Actually, the GOP presidential primary in South Carolina is just a couple of days after spring training begins for the 2024 season.)
There will be new NBA, NHL and MLS champions and an entire Summer Olympics in Paris will have ended before the next general election, as well as two political conventions and potentially at least one felony trial of a former president.
In other words, there’s a lot of game left to be played and potential for the playing field to change.
“Elections create their own dynamic. As an election approaches, voters become more engaged, more energized,” my friend Stuart Rothenberg wrote recently about the need to take a deep breath before over-analyzing survey data more than a year before Election Day. “[Voters] sometimes change their priorities and the message they are trying to deliver when they go to the polls.”
But it’s also rare that election dynamics change overnight, so what looks like a faraway event can come more quickly than expected.